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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Mandeep Singh

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Hello, welcome to Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss. This is the place, of course, you should know the drill by now, where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today is Mandeep Singh, he is one of the Co-Founders of Trouva, the “anti-chain, anti-same online market place for boutique independent retailers.” After seeing bricks and mortar independents fall behind due to a lack of understanding of e-commerce, Mandeep and his partner Alex with backgrounds in retail and tech respectively, created Trouva in 2015. Their vision was to create a thriving global community of shops and shoppers, passionate for unique products and to ensure an independent future for the high street by providing boutiques with the economies of scale and tech that bigger players in the market have. With British high streets evidently taking a battering, they say bricks and mortar is not going to die. I like their belief. Online is merely changing how people shop offline. Hello. Nice to see you.

Mandeep Singh
Hello. Thank you for having me.

Elliot Moss
In your own words, Trouva is dot, dot, dot, dot, dot. Tell me?

Mandeep Singh
Trouva is the place to find beautiful products for your home and for yourself from the very best independent shops around the world. So, we started in London and we have amazing cool boutiques which sell beautiful products from the likes of Shoreditch but all the way through to Berlin and Paris, Amsterdam.

Elliot Moss
Now, the man from Blackburn, if my sources are correct, Mandeep?

Mandeep Singh
For my sins, yes.

Elliot Moss
For your sins. Someone that, you know, Blackburn is a lovely place. Natural Sciences and Management Studies at Cambridge. Bit of management consultancy and similar things. I think you were in private equity as well? How did you arrive at the moment where you said “You know what? I am going to set my business up”?

Mandeep Singh
Right. Probably the driest description of my background I can possibly think of but it probably is not a surprise that why I wanted to leave and go do my own thing, but during my time as an investor and as a consultant I actually spent a lot of time working with a lot of the large retail chains and that’s where I really saw how the impact technology was having on the world of retail which gave us the inspiration behind the idea and I also met a lot of amazing entrepreneurs who’d gone to set up their own businesses and I got frustrated being a consultant and an investor and thought I just didn’t want to wake up one day and think that’s what I’d done with my life, I wanted to be one of those people who tried to create their own thing.

Elliot Moss
And you’d done that a little bit hadn’t you when you were younger? I think you co-founded a business called beseen!, ‘exclamation mark’, that’s the very important thing at the end of beseen! isn’t it?

Mandeep Singh
I was fourteen when we came up with the name for our sins.

Elliot Moss
I know, that’s pretty cool. I mean, so it’s a web development business which you were running alongside school and I quote here from an interview a few years ago: “I learnt much from how to run a business to how to overcome the scepticism of banks and friends and family.”

Mandeep Singh
Right.

Elliot Moss
Has that set you up very well for running your own business as an adult?

Mandeep Singh
It probably has, to be fair because scepticism is something you will always get as an entrepreneur whether it’s you know, trying to raise money for the first time or trying to convince people that, yeah, you’re not insane for quitting your job and giving up your career to go do something that no-one else has managed to get working. But it was, I didn’t come from a family of entrepreneurs or business people, it was something I was doing in my bedroom whilst trying not to tell people that I was doing it and it shows to you that you can prove people wrong, to be honest, and that’s what you have to do as an entrepreneur.

Elliot Moss
And where did that drive come from do you think? Why, at age fourteen did you think I want to do my own thing? Was it just a bit of pocket money or was it something a bit more fundamental than that?

Mandeep Singh
I don’t think even then, let alone now, you start a business for the money, you do it because it’s just something that you love doing and, to be honest, I think I’d always done weird things as a kid. I remember things like setting up a fantasy football league when I was like ten and trying to, you know, get people to sign up for that, whether it was building websites or whether it was selling domain names and so I always just found it really fun and it was exactly the same with the much more sophisticated start up, I mean, nowadays.

Elliot Moss
You said it’s not about the money and now today here you are sitting on a business which has raised, I think it’s about $14 million to date, and you can correct me on that, it might be more it might be less. It’s a serious business, it’s complicated, technology is important, having an aesthetic connection with the people that are selling is important, it’s quite a lot of moving pieces. If it isn’t the money, what’s driving you? Why did you want to do this thing that you are now doing?

Mandeep Singh
I think there’s two answers to that and the first is what probably drove us to, as far as any maybe any entrepreneur but certainly us, myself and Alex, you know quit our jobs to go start our own business, and that was a desire to not just be, you know, working for a big corporate and not being able to see the fruits of our labour, and the way I think about it is that I hope that however big and successful Trouva becomes, I will look back and think I have learnt a hell of a lot, I created something, I created jobs for people and created a business that I am proud of and did something which got me up out of bed in the morning. And the second part of that is, is really tied to our mission and vision and working with great independent shops, they are actually run by people who have similar ambitions. They are often people who quit their jobs at brands like Burberry or in some cases working in tv or working for big corporates to do their life’s mission and life’s dream which is to go set up their own business, their own boutique and what really gets myself and I think a lot of the team out of bed in the morning is the idea that we are helping open up these boutiques to the world and making sure that they don’t just survive but thrive, no matter what the future brings. Yeah.

Elliot Moss
And these, the people that you’ve now brought into the business, are they as passionate as you? Do you make sure they are as passionate as you around this vision, this notion of independent shops selling fabulous things that, you know, might not be seen if it weren’t for your site?

Mandeep Singh
Yeah, absolutely. It’s self-selecting in the first place but it’s something that we go out of the way to make sure people resonate with. Otherwise they shouldn’t be in a business which they don’t believe in the vision and mission of. And every single person in the team is making a similar decision to leave a, you know, potentially a corporate job to go have some equity in joining a start up and it has to be something they absolutely believe in and working in start ups is really tough, there’s loads of amazing highs but there’s some really low lows and without that utter belief in what we are doing and that passion for what the business is doing, then it won’t get you through those low points.

Elliot Moss
And those low points specifically? Are they when stuff just goes wrong? Are they when, you know, a key independent you thought you’d signed up falls away? Are they when the traffic is low? Or is it a combination of all those things or much bigger than that?

Mandeep Singh
It could be anything. It could be actually things which are significant to the business or they could be just really small things. So, I remember in our early days, we’ve been fortunate to raise a lot of money but most investors always say no to every business and so when you are going out there with your heart and soul and talking to investors, I still remember like just anecdotally one investor which wasn’t particularly important but I remember leaving that meeting just feeling like I had been kicked in the face, so…

Elliot Moss
Were they just mean or is it just that they didn’t get what you were doing? I mean, because I hear this a lot and I also hear obviously the, you know, it’s great when someone buys you and buys the business idea and so on and so forth but what’s that about when, why did you, why did it impact you so much? Because at the end of the day it’s a ‘No’, right? And that’s what’s hit you.

Mandeep Singh
Yeah. I think most, the vast majority of investors even who say no, you leave that meeting feeling respect for them. There are cases where it can feel very personal but I think it’s also because you are, you are putting your heart and soul into the business and actually it can be very hard to separate the business from yourself and so therefore it can feel very personal in a way which it never does even if you are working for someone else. So, even if they are saying no for very good reasons, it can feel like they are saying no to you. So, it’s a psychological thing but it’s certainly, you know, emotionally like up and down as a consequence.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper today, that’s Mandeep Singh, he’s the Co-Founder of Trouva. He’s coming up again in a couple of minutes but first, we are going to hear from one of our partners at Mishcon de Reya with some advice for your business.

There are many ways for you to enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and indeed to hear this programme with Mandeep again as well. You can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes or if you pop Jazz Shapers into your preferred podcast platform, you can enjoy the full archive there. But back to today, it’s Mandeep Singh, as I said and he’s the Co-Founder of Trouva – the online market place for boutique independent retailers – it’s got a ring, hasn’t it? We’ve been talking about the personal feeling and the way that it hits you when there’s that ‘No’. It strikes me that you are very connected to what you do and I can now see the strategic question that you wanted to answer which is there must be an antidote for independents on the high street, I know what, I am going to do, we’re going to create this business and so on. I can see that from a cerebral point of view. But the personal thing interests me. When you are dealing with your team, are you super personal as well? Is it just the same Mandeep? Would your team say of you, this is a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve? Or is it a bit, is it different to that?

Mandeep Singh
It’s a difficult question for me to answer, I think the team could probably do a better job of answering it.

Elliot Moss
What might they say if they were here?

Mandeep Singh
As the business grows and matures and we are now about eighty people, I think it’s probably less likely the team would say that and, in fact, one of the interesting things about being an entrepreneur is that your role is constantly evolving and so right at the beginning when we were, you know, a few guys in a room, guys and girls in a small room, I am sure that was the case but, you know, we now have a great senior team, I have to spend a lot of my time out, not necessarily running the business day-to-day, my Co-Founders are also doing the same, so I suspect it’s a maturity thing as a business that the bigger we get, and the more people we are, probably the less that’s true but certainly in the early days, I am sure it was.

Elliot Moss
And then therefore, in terms of your leadership style now, because you said it’s bigger and you’ve got people doing stuff and all that. Are you, you don’t strike me as a micro-manager? It strikes me that there’s new things to grow and build and you are going to be off developing those things. If that’s the case then how’s the, how do you manage to ensure that everyone, that senior team does what they need to do?

Mandeep Singh
It’s a really good question and I think one that we are still solving, and there’s some of the ways that we run our business is that I have Co-Founders who are running the business alongside me so it certainly doesn’t feel that I have to take that entire burden myself but also I think it’s a classic entrepreneurial problem that in the early days you are doing everything yourself – Alex and I were out signing up the first shops, we were doing digital marketing, we were building the website and as we mature one of the things that we have to learn to do, like every entrepreneur has to is, to let go of those day-to-day things and I was, for example, I was in San Francisco a couple of months ago for the first time out in Silicon Valley and met a lot of CEOs of pretty large, amazing Valley businesses, you don’t say start ups anymore. And, I remember asking one of them, what the job of a Co-Founder, a CEO, is and he articulated this way which was, ‘I know I am doing a great job if I could turn up at 11.00 o’clock, have a long lunch and then go home again’. Of course, no-one ever does that, you never do as an entrepreneur but I understood the sentiment behind it which was that his job was not to run things day-to-day and actually having a brilliant, amazing team who can run the business day-to-day to free you up to do things which are more strategic or whether it’s external or thinking about the future of the business and I think that’s where we want to get to as Co-Founders.

Elliot Moss
Is it where you really want to get to though? Because there’s part of you that must be thinking, do you know what, I am relentless, if I don’t tell and show exactly what I want this business to be it’s four years old, if I am not fully involved in some form then actually that’s never going to happen. I am just looking at you, I feel like that you might like the sound of it and then you go no that’s not going to happen.

Mandeep Singh
I think we know that’s what we need to do. It’s different being said than done. I think that’s fair to say. And we’re not fully there yet.

Elliot Moss
No. And Alex and you, what’ the dynamic in terms of where do you think his strengths are versus yours and how have you divided up the business as you’ve gone?

Mandeep Singh
So, Alex and I come from quite different backgrounds. So, Alex came, was a computer scientist by background and was on the first ever entrepreneur first cohort in London. So, certainly he has more of a focus on the product and technical side day-to-day and myself more on the commercial side but I think it also comes down to whether it’s myself or Alex or the rest of the senior team, we are very different personalities and we come from different backgrounds and that means that even though we are aligned in where we are getting to which is vital, we often articulate things in a different way or see things from a different angle and that makes us much stronger as a leadership team, I am totally convinced by that. Different personality types are crucial.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper, it’s Mandeep Singh, Co-Founder and CEO at Trouva. Time for some more music, it’s Bill Laurance, he’s brilliant and he’s a very nice man too, and it’s called The Pines.

That was Bill Laurance with The Pines. Mandeep Singh is my Business Shaper and he’s Co-Founder of Trouva. You mentioned Alex, your partner and the computer science background and he’s kind of focussed on the product. There has never been stiffer competition from the online world, in the online world, for my attention for, for customers’ attention and for doing things easily. How are you ensuring that you are going to have the edge in terms of the experience? I mean I read somewhere you said something about you’ve delivered an item in as little as twenty two minutes before, and of course the delivery is one bit of it, the interface is the other bit, the is it available? All those things, not easy when you’ve got a big disparate business with no sort of singular warehouse. How are you making sure that you remain at the edge of what it is that consumers want?

Mandeep Singh
It’s a great question and we are doing some amazing things which we can do because we are working with bricks and mortar shops and bricks and mortar boutiques, like really quick delivery, instant click and collect. The fact that these products are coming from a human person who is running a boutique and some of the great experiences I have had when buying from Trouva when I’ve had a handwritten note from one of the boutique owners, for example. But I think actually the bigger question is, is fundamentally that we are trying to challenge what people think about when they think about online shopping. Online shopping has been around for twenty four years now. It’s Amazon’s 24th or 25th anniversary this year. And up to now, everyone has taken the same approach as Amazon which is let’s just lump a bunch of stuff in a warehouse, you know, it’s all about price and it’s all about, and therefore they are competing purely on convenience. But most shopping is not actually about price and convenience. Maybe when I buy a HDMI cable it’s all about, I don’t really care about the product or the store or where it comes from, but that’s very, very different when you are buying something for your home, a piece which really means something to you and it’s emotional shopping and that’s actually what offline retail is and boutiques are so amazing at, they are going out around the world to handpick and curate the very best products from the very best independent brands, putting them in the physical space which is, it’s like going into an art gallery, and so shopping is an experience, it’s shopping for fun. So, purely trying to remove friction from the shopping journey is fine for some categories but actually the things that boutiques sell, it’s actually not so much about, purely about convenience, it’s about discovering something beautiful that you never knew you wanted until you saw it for the first time and it’s catching that emotion and the thrill of discovering the perfect thing for your home or for yourself that boutiques are fantastic at. And that’s what no-one has really cracked in the online world and so we are actually fundamentally challenging the way people do ecommerce by saying, well it’s not just about cheap stuff coming from a warehouse, this is about beautiful items coming directly from these amazing bricks and mortar independents.

Elliot Moss
You don’t have to answer this question honestly but I’m going to ask it anyway. Do you actually like shopping? And do you like online shopping?

Mandeep Singh
Good question.

Elliot Moss
Only because, you know, you talk about passion and my sense is, again, you are passionate about solving the problem and that problem is about lovely individual things but also reconnecting people emotionally and it’s not doing the, what’s it called, sell them cheap, stack them high thing which you just described. But, at heart, are you the kind of person that would go out and want to find that incredible rug or that beautiful top or?

Mandeep Singh
I absolutely have had that experience but really crucially, I think we all have. It’s not necessarily that it’s X set of people buy everything emotionally and Y set of people buy everything commoditised. I do both those journeys and when I have bought, for example, you know, a what’s the last thing, piece of commoditised items I bought was actually a laptop charger, then in that mode when I am buying a laptop charger, I am not, you know, I am not looking for the journey and the experience and something beautiful, right?

Elliot Moss
Unless you were strange.

Mandeep Singh
Yes, exactly. Very unusual person. Who’d do that? And we all are, right? But then we’ve all bought a piece of clothing or something for our home or a gift for a loved one, where actually we are the emotional shopper. So, yes, I absolutely am but I think that we all are, it’s just that this type of experience really matters for some types of products and the kind of things which have moved online very quickly like books and electronics, for example, it rarely is the case. So, we are really going after products like homewares, lifestyle gifts, fashion accessories, which are actually still very low e-commerce penetrated, only like 15% in the UK and much less across the rest of the world, where that emotional experience, desire, is really strong.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for my final chat with Mandeep and you’ll be hearing a track from Mr Ray Charles. That’s up in just a moment.

That was Ray Charles with Hit The Road Jack, one of my personal favourites, I love that. I’m with Mandeep Singh just for a few more minutes and you talked about emotional experiences in the shopping context and you talk about understanding when certain purchases are that and obviously buying your, you know, your laptop charger is not that. As you look forward to next few years, and you are four years in, and in the blink of any it will be eight years, what are you trying to do with the business overall? What’s the shape of scaling up this sense of emotional experience? What does it look like? Does it require another round of funding? Does it require loads more people? What is it do you think that will be? What are the key levers for your growth?

Mandeep Singh
I mean, one of the great things about being a technology platform as we are is that it’s really scalable and that means that we can go find shops in different countries and get them on the platform but crucially for us, what really excites us is the idea of being able to shop amazing independents who it would be virtually impossible for you to find otherwise, maybe they are in hidden and the back streets of towns and cities on the other side of the world, so where we would like Trouva to get to is a global network of the very best independent shops no matter whether it’s Paris, Berlin, London or New York or Tokyo, and you as a customer from the comfort of your home can go browse and discover that beautiful piece which is on the back street of Shibuya in Tokyo and maybe get it delivered to you in your local shop and pick it up there for example. That idea of a global network of the very best independents united in one community but that you as a customer can then shop across that entire community in one place, that’s what really excites us.

Elliot Moss
And that’s going to take a bit of time, I guess. That’s you then reaching out literally into those different countries and different cities and physically having to know your stuff.

Mandeep Singh
Right, it’s, you know, a marathon not a sprint building a really big business and we are very fortunate to have had investors who really believe in building that huge vision and that for us is what gets out of bed in the morning.

Elliot Moss
And issues like sustainable fashion and, you know, recyclable fashion and things like that and people talking all about supply chains and Modern Slavery Act and things like that. How do you ensure that that is also, I mean, is it built into your thinking as you go because you are in a, it’s a very artisan end of the market so I imagine you have more control than big brands which use big factories?

Mandeep Singh
Right, and that trend and that desire for people caring about provenance resonates really well with our customers and our boutiques and we have, for example, we have a boutique owner in Berlin who runs a Fair Trade fashion boutique where she has been really passionate about finding brands, for example, that make trainers out of recycled plastic bottles and so that combined with this desire for actually having a piece that you are going to keep, that you are really passionate about and it’s the complete antithesis of fast fashion which is cheap and you don’t really care, it might not last, and you throw it away at the end of the season, that’s the complete opposite to the types of products you can find on Trouva. So, I think those trends resonate really strongly with our customer base.

Elliot Moss
And on balance, I am imagining it’s a huge thumbs up to not being in a career job and actually running your own thing?

Mandeep Singh
Right, yeah, I mean I…

Elliot Moss
Best thing you ever did?

Mandeep Singh
Best thing I ever did other than probably get married so we can put those two in the same, close, in the same bucket. But absolutely the right thing for me. It’s not the right thing for everyone and it’s a tough journey but it’s something that you learn so much from and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Elliot Moss
Mandeep, it’s been a real pleasure meeting you and listening to you. Good luck with your journey.

Mandeep Singh
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
It seems like it’s going the right way and I really hope it continues to do so. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Mandeep Singh
So, my song choice is a soul track, Stevie Wonder, As. It was actually chosen by my wife and I as the first dance at our wedding.

Elliot Moss
That was Stevie Wonder with As, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Mandeep Singh. He and his partner’s vision to transform the way that independent retailers could reach people online was the thing that took him from his career into actually becoming an entrepreneur. He has now surrounded himself with like-minded people who also want the same thing, not just in his business but around the world. And really importantly, trying to create an emotional connection with people and saying that actually, even online, you can do that. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a great weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more, just search Jazz Shapers and iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers

Mandeep Singh is the Co-Founder and CEO of Trouva, the “anti-chain, anti-same online market place for boutique independent retailers.”

Recognising that independent brick-and-mortar stores were falling behind due to an “awful understanding” of e-commerce, Mandeep and his Co-Founders, Alex Loizou and Glen Walker, founded Trouva in 2015 to create a different kind of e-commerce environment that provides technology, logistic and online consumer store services to the crème de la crème of brick-and-mortar stores who are not able to optimise their digital offering.

Since its inception in 2015, Trouva has been confirmed as a Maserati 100 2018 company and has been named as a top 5 UK technology scale-up (TNW Tech 5) in consecutive years (2016-2019).

Graduating with an MA in Natural Sciences & Management from Cambridge in 2007, Mandeep has always had an “entrepreneurial itch” and is passionate about helping small businesses thrive, saying “independents are incredibly vulnerable to business rates. Any small change can make them unprofitable. We are helping by opening [them] up to audiences across the world.”

Follow Mandeep on Twitter @mandeepsinghuk.

Interview highlights

Scepticism is something you will always get as an entrepreneur.

You start a business because it’s something you love doing.

I created something.

I remember leaving that meeting feeling like I had been kicked in the face.

Different personality types are crucial.

We are trying to challenge what people think about when they think about online
shopping.

It’s about discovering something beautiful that you never knew you wanted until you saw it.

The idea of a global network of the very best independents united in one community… that’s what really excites us.

That desire for people caring about provenance resonates really well with our customers and our boutiques.

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